Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Recognizing Opportunities that Lead to Success: Outliers


by Malcolm Gladwell

Kansas Dad read this book first. He encouraged me to read it and thought the kids would benefit from it as well, so I proposed it to my book club.

Malcolm Gladwell looks closely at success stories of modern society and dissects them to show how those who succeed do so by taking advantage of opportunities and an environment that enable success. While they must have certain characteristics like persistence, intelligence, and dedication, those characteristics alone are not enough.
People don't rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
One of the most interesting and informative chapters for the homeschooling parent, I think, is "The 10,000-Hour Rule" in which Mr. Gladwell argues persuasively that those who practice long and hard (and have the opportunity to do so) are the ones who have the opportunity to succeed. When looking at hockey and soccer teams, for example, he shows that the bigger boys (in this case), those born early in the year, disproportionately show an early "talent," are selected for traveling or all-star teams, and the increased practice time perpetuates their higher level of skills. Of course, they must still have talent and put in the effort and time to practice, but there are many with the talent who will never succeed because they never have the chance.

That same tendency to pick out the advanced skill-level applies to tracking in elementary schools. The younger kinds in early elementary grades are not as mature, not as ready for the reading and writing skills. They're put in the "lower" group, and never get out of it.

I think this first chapter is the one the children might find the most applicable in their lives. It's easy to give up or think we aren't talented enough in math or piano or Latin, but if you're willing and able to devote focus and practice time, you can succeed at nearly anything. Of course, that won't convince them if they hate math or piano or Latin, but that's another topic.

There are also interesting comparisons of achievements from students at top-tier schools like Harvard with other good schools. A motivated and talented student can achieve greatness from any good school.
The psychologist Barry Schwartz recently proposed that elite schools give up their complex admissions process and simply hold a lottery for everyone above the threshold. "Put people into two categories," Schwartz says. "Good enough and not good enough. The ones who are good enough get put into a hat. And those who are not good enough get rejected."
I don't work in an admissions department, but this makes sense to me. Most colleges probably want to balance a class in terms of socioeconomic level, gender, and geographic diversity, as well as academic interests, but there's no doubt in my mind that scores of students turned away from top-tier universities would be excellent students at those very schools and were rejected for no reason better than a lottery could provide.

There are some chapters at the end looking at education, specifically comparing expectations for how much time students will spend at school in different cultures, with those who score well on international assessments being those that school year-round and for long hours. Mr. Gladwell follows a student at a KIPP Academy, with long hours, Saturday classes, and summer classes, all in an concerted effort to counter the culture of a low-income family with that of a high achieving one, one that presents educational opportunities to children day-in and day-out. While I don't disagree that life should be one of curiosity and challenge, I think perhaps our society has veered from what is truly important if the only way to achieve "success" is to force our students to be in a classroom extensively and curtail relationships to the bare minimum in order to do well.

This was an interesting book to read and discuss at our book club. I am considering assigning it as a "life skills book," or something of that nature, in high school. (There are references to the strip clubs in which the Beatles played to stack up all the practice hours they needed to become superstars.)

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